Thursday, March 08, 2007

Le 30e anniversaire de la Journée internationale de la femme

Right now (at 8:29 p.m. on 8 March 2007) both Radio-Canada and CBC Radio Two are broadcasting a concert live from the Spectrum concert hall in Montreal. 30 Ans, Une Voix/30 Years - 1 Voice celebrates the 30th anniversary of International Women's Day (IWD). I was unaware, until 8:08 p.m. (when, in search of some nice nighttime jazz music, I tuned into Espace Musique) that it was IWD. I feel badly that I didn't know.

The United Nations established IWD in 1977. Status of Women Canada's website reads that, each important 8 March thereafter, we have celebrated the advancement of women's rights and have assessed the challenges that remain. IWD is to encourage us to work for equality for women and girls.

What's more, this year Canada marks International Women's Week (IWW) from Sunday, March 4, to Saturday, March 10. Oops. Now I feel like a real moron for failing to notice this week-long commemoration. Why do I feel badly? Well, primarily, because I am a woman. Shouldn't I have known? Shouldn't IWD be among those annual events I deem it important to remember?

Perhaps my guilt, and Radio-Canada/CBC's concert, resonate particularly strongly with me in the wake of our discussion about historians telling others' stories. As a member of the female sex, I feel obliged to mark IWW and IWD. My guilt is a genuine, authentic reaction to the sense that both are events for women, commemorated by women. 30 Ans, Une Voix corroborates that notion. Patti Schmidt and Sophie Durocher host the evening. All of the performers are female. Schmidt and Durocher introduced Renée Claude as "the image of a modern woman." The evening's songs, they explained, tell of love, liberty and of striving for equality.

'Well, of course, that female focus only makes sense', I am wont to say. Would Canadians, then, (men and women) find it strange if a man was included in the concert bill? What if male artists comprised two of the nine performers? What if the evening featured two female, and seven male musicians? Can men celebrate International Women's Day? What kind of listener responses would inundate CBC and Radio-Canada had their broadcast been a male artist-only affair?

Historians, we seemed to conclude on Monday, should be free to tell others' stories. I recall, however, a particular tutorial that I led in the fall on women in medieval Europe. Surrounded (literally) by young women, a male student blushed in response to a question about power relationships. "I'm not gonna touch that one" he laughed, gesturing to the female students to answer my question, instead.

Let's imagine that male student were to take up women's history and, in 2027, were to curate an exhibition (as was Diana's interesting suggestion) about women and menopause at the ROM. What kind of response, Diana challenged, might his work garner from the Canadian public? I am unhappy to admit that, no matter how learned that man might be about menopause and related women's issues, how much he had conversed with women's groups in the development of his exhibition and to what great extents he had involved women in the exhibit's production, I would wonder at his qualifications for the job. I can't reconcile my 'gut feeling' that, in this hypothetical case, only an 'insider' to the group could best represent issues pertaining to women with my sentiments about the ROM's controversial Into the Heart of Africa exhibition. About that case, I believe that if she had communicated effectively with members of African and Caribbean communities in Toronto and adequately involved such members in her exhibition planning, the ROM's Jean Canizzo could have mounted an exhibition on objects collected by Canadians in Africa. I can't, right now, stand behind a firm personal philosophy on the telling of others' stories.

Incidentally, 19 November is International Men's Day in Trinidad and Tobago. Australia's Dr. Michael Flood has written an interesting open letter rejecting IMD as an inappropriate, and ineffective way to improve men's health and well-being. IMD invites a conservative understanding of gender relations, he argued. Flood's argument against "me-too-ism" has challenged me to think on ways that men could participate, with authority, in telling women's history and in marking International Women's Day.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Invention to Innovation: Current Exhibitions

It is truly amazing how much hard work is required to produce an exhibit text. The UWO Public History students have worked diligently since September 2006 to produce the Museum London exhibit Invention to Innovation. The exhibit examines how nineteenth and twentieth century inventions affected life in London, Ontario. It also features aspects of current innovation in research and development in London. The exhibit runs 10 February through 12 August 2007 at Museum London, 421 Ridout St. North, London, Ontario.

The partner virtual Invention to Innovation exhibit ( provides much additional information on invention and innovation, as well as on the objects featured in the Museum London exhibition.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Film as GDR history, view into current German psyche

(I clearly lack the focus to continue my serial blog posts uninterrupted. This little foray into the uses of historical film is, however, but an intermission. The state of the ROM's permanent European exhibition is too terrible to remain without comment for much longer).

On 6 February, The Globe and Mail published a fascinating article on how first-time director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's new film Das Leben der Anderen (in English, The Lives of Others) challenges popular expressions of Ostalgie [1]. If you've visited Germany in recent years, or have kept an eye on current German culture, you'll likely have noticed this nostalgia for the former GDR. The 2003 film Good Bye Lenin! is a perfect example of the Ostalgie phenomenon, as are mountains of ampelman merchandise available in downtown Berlin tourist shops.

I believe that, far from being just cute or kitschy, Ostalgie can be genuinely dangerous. The Globe article expressed this important notion well: "(t)his warped sentimentality of life in the East has fuelled a 'conspiracy to forget' that was in genuine danger of rewriting the memory of Germany's history in the later half of the 20th century", it stated. Donnersmarck's film, it argued, challenges that "warped sentimentality", reminding its viewers that "life behind the Berlin Wall wasn't retro cool."

Judging by a description of its plot, Das Leben der Anderen recalls life in the GDR in a much more terrifying, honest and realistic way than do chubby ampelmen and nifty-looking trabants. Indeed, Donnersmarck told the Globe reporter that the growth of Ostalgie was his motivation for making a film that depicted some realities of the period. The film has been a great success: Donnersmarck commented on his amazement that respected intellectuals from the former GDR had announced publicly that the film had "opened a new chapter."

If Donnersmarck's film truly constitutes a significant shift in interpretation of the GDR past in film, it is, and will continue to be an invaluable resource for historians. Perhaps we can recall Marnie Hughes-Warringon's statement "historical films and written history are not forms of history; they are history" [2]. Historians can mine not only the film The Lives of Others, but also the contexts of its production and reception, for rich understandings of how former East Germans faced their nation's past in the early 21st century.

[1]. Edward Wilkinson Latham, "Ostalgie: Do You Miss the Stasi Too?" The Globe and Mail 6 February 2007, Review section. Though the article was fantastic, I have to say that the limited access the Globe allows to this article turns me off completely. Last week, I was able to access the full text of the article, along with a scanned image of its original paper format, through an "archives" search on The Globe & Mail website. Now, to have access to the article for a month, the full-text will cost me upwards of $4.00. The license to reprint the article online for one month costs $250-, while a license to email the article to 6-20 friends costs $20-. It's a ridiculous, and frustrating situation. I have half a mind to post the full text on this blog, because I think it could be of interest to my fellow Public History students. If you're interested in the article, please email me and I'll send you a copy. I've just installed Zotero, however, and am still learning about its amazing powers - does anyone know if my 'snapshot' of the webpage that features the article will remain in my library even after my 30-day license to this article expires?

[2]. Marnie Hughes-Warrington, “Introduction” in History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 9.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Learning from the ROM's crisis (1)

Serial blog posts seem to be in vogue. I share Jeremy's thoughts on the value of shorter, more frequent posts, and so am jumping on the bandwagon. My aim is to reflect on the ROM's current chaotic state, as I believe we can learn much from the institution's "Renaissance." This is the first of a few installments that will reflect on my recent ROM visit.

The ROM is in a terrible crisis. Components of its old permanent installation literally fall off the walls at one end of the museum. At the other, construction crews assemble Libeskind's extraordinarily costly addition. Somewhere in between the embarrassingly decrepit European galleries and the plastic drop sheet that, taped up to cover a gaping hole in the wall, invites frigid February drafts and screeching construction-related noises to be an integral part of the visitor's experience, is one of the ROM's current exhibitions, Déco Lalique. "Classic. Elegant. Timeless." Indeed.

On Tuesday 6 February I visited the ROM with five UWO Art History Master's students, one U of T Art History PhD candidate, and one extremely animated UWO Professor of Art History and Museum Studies. We likely weren't representative of the 'typical' visitor group, yet a number of components of the ROM's presentation elicited such strong reactions from my group that I believe those reactions to be important.

After ascending from the temporary basement entrance, we emerged into the Samuel Hall/ Currelly Gallery (see the image below). I sincerely hope that "Renaissance ROM" will
involve renovation to this Hall. It is vast, and it sits at the Museum's centre. Effectively used, it could be an impressive space. What does it currently occupy? Faux leather couches and IKEA-esque tables, mismatched in colour. Additionally, stationed around the Hall's perimeter are objects that, devoid of curatorial interpretation, only serve to confuse. Two historical murals feature medieval jousting scenes, while glass cases present such objects as personal armour, large swords, and stuffed mammals. The large Buddhist statue featured in this photograph neighbors two dinosaur skeletons. Two 14-foot glass screens in this Hall present an interactive digital exhibition on the history of philanthropy at the ROM. The concept behind the whole installation is that the Hall offers "iconic" objects that "sample the breadth of the Museum's collections."

It is an intelligent concept for an introductory hall. The first room of our Invention to Innovation exhibit employs a similar tactic, doesn't it? Our introductory room, however, features a voice. It explains to the visitor how the disparate objects in the first room are related. What's more, it makes clear that their relationship illustrates the exhibit's chief concept. It is the presence of this voice that makes our introductory room an effective, well, introduction to the exhibit and its overriding concept. It is the absence of such a voice that makes the ROM's Samuel Hall/Currelly Gallery look like an oversized attic, or a garage sale.

All members of my group agreed that, without any justification for their juxtapositioning, the exhibit of medievalising murals and armour, dinosaurs, digital technology and glassy-eyed natural history beasties made little sense. Furthermore, from a physical plant and interior design perspective, we agreed that the lighting in the Hall is dingy, and its modern panel ceiling with pot lights clashes with the stone and marble walls almost as much as the chrome couches do with the Hall's wood floor.

Has the ROM cast the Samuel Hall/Currelly Gallery aside? Is the Museum's current channeling of resources to the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal making some of its "old favourites" ineffective installations? My next post will suggest that the ROM has similarly abandoned its Samuel European Galleries. Their physical disrepair, lack of object documentation and pedagogical approach render "some of the ROM's most popular and renowned collections" unprofessional exhibitions.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

(Museum) Architecture and Cultural Identity

The majority of my last post was taken from an editorial that I wrote for a Public History class exercise back in mid-October, 2006. Recent experiences have caused me to reflect in different ways on the case of the ROM's Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.

The architecture that a community chooses for its major cultural institutions reveals, of course, much about the values the society, community and particular designers want to infuse in that institution. The ROM website features a couple of interesting pages on the Museum's history; they teach that the original building was opened to the public on 19 March 1914. On the left is a photograph of a hand-lettered and illuminated presentation address, given as a gift by Toronto artist A.H. Howard to the Governor General of Canada on the occasion of his official opening of the ROM.

We are all familiar with the notion that, when public museums began to emerge in force in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of their architects turned to Neoclassical, or Gothic architectural forms.[1] New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (opened in its current location in 1880), American Museum of Natural History (opened 1877), as well as The Cloisters (a museum devoted to Medieval Art, opened in 1914 and now a branch of the MET) provide a few examples. We all know that there is nothing indigenous about Classical and Medieval art & architecture in North America. Borrowing those European forms, however, lent credibility and authenticity to our young nations' new institutions.

Much, I'm sure, has been written on Architecture's role in Nation-building in the late nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries in Europe. For a couple of accessible examples, see Heather McMahon's M.A. Thesis (Central European University, 2004) on constructing a Hungarian national architectural style at the turn of the 20th century, and the blog post of South Hadley, Mass., Ph.D. student "Nathanael" on "A Catholic Style, A German Style" in the Rhine River region.

I think that "nation-building" through the use of value-laden architecture also happened on a much smaller scale than that of grand Gothic Cathedrals and national museums. American horticulturalist and writer Andrew Jackson Downing's 1850 book The Architecture of Country Houses, for example, aimed to educate the American middle class about the virtues of "uniting a simple and chaste Gothic style with forms adapted to and expressive of our modern domestic life." Downing ascribed a moralizing function to romantic architecture - one that he hoped would strengthen Americans' moral virtue.[2]

What's really interesting, though, is that in the midst of all this turn-of-the-century boasting about the value of old European forms in North American contexts, American librarian and museum director John Cotton Dana wrote in 1917 about "The Gloom of the Museum." Of particular interest are his arguments about how the museum edifice should be in harmony with its surroundings. His argument is worth quoting at some length here:

"A building of steel and concrete in a modern American city is not made an appropriate home of the fine arts by placing on its front the facade of one or the facades of half a dozen Greek temples or of 15th-century Italian palaces (...) In time we shall learn to insist that great public buildings like libraries and museums be erected as such and not as imitations of structures developed for quite other purposes, in other cities, in other times, and under limitations as to material and method by which we are no longer bound."[3]

It's remarkable that Dana's ninety year-old argument resonates when we think about the current trend of hiring big-name architects of international fame to renovate our museums. The ROM crystal and the Denver Art Museum extension are, in my mind, imitations of Libeskind's earlier designs - ones developed for other purposes, in other times, and in other cities. Are those who approve these design decisions trying to project a certain image for our cities, just as was Downing? Are they involved in some kind of contemporary "nation-building" themselves? Libeskind's crystal and another current, large-scale renovation, Frank Gehry's plans for the Art Gallery of Ontario will surely boost Toronto's reputation for 'world-class' architecture. But what cost do such unapologetically cosmopolitan projects as Libeskind's exact? Are there drawbacks to housing the ROM's collections in a building that could just as well be in Berlin? I'm still trying to think this problem through. Any thoughts?

[1]. As is likely fairly clear, I am no art history expert. The MET is a bit of a confusing case for me: I've seen reference to it as an example of Neoclassical architecture, but also to it as an example of Gothic Revival. Do any art historians out there care to clear up my confusion?

[2]. See Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses (New York: Appleton & Co, 1850), 440, as cited in Elizabeth Bradford Smith, ed., Medieval Art in America: Patterns of Collecting 1800-1940 (exhibition catalogue) Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University (University Park, PA, 1996), 77.

[3]. Dana, "The Gloom of the Museum," in Gail Anderson, ed., Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2004), 22.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Museums should avoid designs of the past, demand innovation

On the left is a projected view of Daniel Libeskind's new crystal design for the Royal Ontario Museum's extension. The image is taken from Libeskind's website. The ROM is touting the current construction of this extension as part of the institution's total rebirth. "Renaissance ROM is one of the most important architectural commissions of our time," boasts the ROM's website. The project, the website continues, "...will simultaneously restore one of Canada's historic landmarks to its original splendour and create a new signature building for the city of Toronto."

Sounds fantastic! I love the ROM. I was a Saturday Morning Club-goer for years, and that experience continues to make me feel at home in the Museum. [1] The ROM was an integral part of my unique experience of growing up in Toronto. I'm glad that Libeskind's design was tailor-made for the great city.

Or was it? On the right is a 2006 construction photo taken from Daniel Libeskind's website. It depicts his extension to the Denver Art Museum. Hmmm. The geometric projections and intersecting line design features look familiar, don't they? Below is a photo of another of Libeskind's unique designs: The Jewish Museum, Berlin, opened 2001 in the downtown core of the German capital.

“I was inspired by the mountains”, is how Libeskind explained his design for the Denver Art Museum, opened 7 October 2006. Curiously, there are no mountains visible from downtown Berlin. When the Jewish Museum opened in 2001, Libeskind explained that its design evoked the absence of Berlin’s Jewish citizens. There are no mountains nearby Toronto, and Libeskind has stated that his “Renaissance ROM” design illustrates the relationship between history and the new.

Is the concept of site-specific design alien to Mr. Libeskind? Does not a city’s particular history and culture demand a museum that will honour its individuality? I’d bet a whole pile of Denver Nuggets that few Denverites think their urban culture is interchangeable with that of Torontonians, or Berliners. Yet within two years, two of our major North American Museums will have chosen NOT to support cutting-edge design in their major architectural additions. Instead, they will have relied on near-identical architecture to communicate wildly different messages. Our ROM could have avoided relying on past designs. It could have, instead, opted for architecture that reflected Toronto’s unique past, and particular cultural heritage.

As intelligent citizens of the world’s dynamic cities, we need not support architectural redundancy. If we are informed of great international designs, we can demand that our own cultural institutions – as well as our municipal and provincial governments – embrace architectural innovation.

[1]. The ROM's Saturday Morning Club offers a number of really neat educational programs for kids. Each program runs for approximately 8 weeks, with 3-hour long meetings every Saturday morning.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A little bit of history (and museology) repeating

I'm currently taking an art history course on how North Americans have collected medieval Art, and how we've displayed it in our museums. We're also looking at some of the challenges and issues we face when we mount medieval art exhibitions for diverse audiences today.

We spent Wednesday's seminar talking about the nineteenth century beginnings of individuals' collecting of medieval art. I learned that some of the issues we've encountered in our public history context about authentic, versus replica artifacts arose in that early collecting period in America.

Apparently, when the first big public art museums began to be established in the States after the Civil War, art was largely thought of as an educational tool for the masses. We know this - we're familiar with the notion of fine art having some moral effect on its audience. But did you know that, at that time, Americans weren't exactly sure of how to approach the public display of European art? Museum officials were a little uneasy with oft smooth-talking European dealers, and their ability to swindle. So, American museums of the late 19th century preferred displaying reproductions of great works of European art.[1]

It's interesting to think that those museum officials thought reproductions could effectively communicate important moral lessons. For them, then, the authenticity of the piece was subordinate to a more general message. The contemporary writings on collections and pedagogy that I listed in my last blog post seem to embody very similar notions.

And we think we're being avant-garde when we reflect on the emerging "post-museum" that reimagines museums' identity.[2] It's all just little bits of history repeating.

[1] All of this information (though corroborated by my Professor, Dr. Kathryn Brush, and by my classmates, all graduate students in art history who know worlds more about this stuff than I ever, ever will), is outlined in a really neat exhibition catalogue. We're using this catalogue, itself put together by Penn State grad students, as one of our core textbooks: Medieval Art in America: Patterns of Collecting, 1800-1940 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1996). See page 22 for this particular reference. This catalogue is neat because it displays medieval art, but it also explains Americans' evolution of taste in collecting. The exhibition it documents was an exhibition about past exhibitions.

[2] Yes, "post-museum." Sigh. See Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture (New York: Routledge, 2000), preface. She writes that the "post-museum" is emerging in the 21st century. It is a place where the visitor is active, and where that visitor determines meaning in the museum.

Move over, Collections

In last Tuesday's Introduction to Museum Studies class, we discussed the centrality of collections in defining museums. In last Wednesday's Public History class we thought about criticism the Canadian Museum of Civilization received in its early days for seemingly favouring other elements of its presentation - such as live performances, exhibits that replicated places of the past, and some replica artifacts - over its collections of authentic artifacts.

The last museum visit I made was to the McCord. I wasn't particularly moved by the museum's Simply Montréal permanent exhibit until I saw an element that bore direct relevance to my life experience. It was stationed near the exhibit's end. It wasn't an authentic artifact that caught my eye. It was a simplified map of the city, apparently constructed (out of some kind of plywood) specifically for the exhibit. The map was colour-coded according to predominant languages spoken per area, and was fixed to a wall below a silent film clip that featured Montrealers 'on the go' in the city.

This component of the exhibit moved me because it spoke directly to my life experience. The video clip featured shots from my neighborhood. That was my hook. It didn't come from an 'authentic' historic artifact. What's more, only after that "aha!" moment did I care to pay attention to the "big idea" of the Simply Montréal exhibit. The "big idea", paraphrased, is this: Montréal is a neat city that owes its dynamism to its rich history. The McCord evinces that rich history through First Nations objects, Notman photographs, and a diverse array of everyday objects of Montrealers such as apparel, and household items.

These objects are incredibly varied. To ensure that its visitor has an "aha!" moment like mine - or to make sure that moment comes before the exhibit's end - the McCord could make its curatorial voice louder. I believe it could do this by including more teaching tools, like the map and video, in the exhibit. Without such tools, I argue, visitors may not understand the big "so what?" that links the collection.

Move over, collections! Yes, yes, you reside at the museum's core, but share the spotlight with pedagogy. I'm adding my voice to some comments my colleagues have made. They have referred to the Canadian Museum of Civilization as example. Alex has reflected on the need to balance "flashy interactives" and artifact replicas with authentic collections. Carling has insisted that collection and interpretation is what "makes a museum a museum." Additionally, I argue, it is constructive to think of pedagogy as extending beyond interpretation in the exhibit itself. We all know that funding crises plague museums. With that important reality in mind, I say that, ideally, museums' educational programming can work to effectively integrate the museum into its community.

Some things I've read the past week do a great job of articulating the need to place pedagogy at the museum's core. They all address the ways to make the museum relevant to communities today. The following ideas have inspired me to think of the museum in different ways:

1. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill argues for the museum as a "social and cultural institution." Museums can be important (and necessary, even) cultural centres. She writes of research in England that uncovered a common notion among "ethnic" communities that museums ignored Black contributions to British life because, it was thought, those museums continued a colonial view of the past. The same study, however, also confirmed that said communities thought museums could be places where Asian and Afro-Caribbean parents could meet to discuss their own cultural values. [1]

2. E.H. Gurian has argued that the essence of a museum is not objects. Rather, it is a "place that stores memories." Objects are necessary for the museum, but they are not sufficient. What people really care about is ownership of a story. They don't care about ownership of the artifact itself. [2] If museums are less object-based, artifacts are props. Again, they are essential to a museum's purpose, but only in so far as they make an exhibit's 'big idea' tangible. The foundational definition of the museum, Gurain writes, will not centre on objects, but rather on the institution as a place for storytelling "in tangible sensory form." Providing a story is to perform a community service. As such, museums are "social service providers."[3]

3. Stephen E. Weil's writing can help us think further on these kinds of ideas. While museums once focused predominantly on collections (development, research, conservation, etc.), he writes many now have shifted that focus to public service. Collections, he continues, are no longer an end in themselves. Instead, they are a means to that end. Museums should ask about each artifact's utility: "how might this object be useful to the museum in carrying out its institutional mission?" In this way, museums subordinate collections to a bigger vision of the museum's function in the community. [4]

[1]. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture (New York: Routledge, 2000), 7.
[2]. E.H. Gurian, "What is the Object of the Exercise? A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums" in Gail Anderson, ed., Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2004), 270-1.
[3]. Gurian in Anderson, 282-3.
[4]. Stephen E. Weil, "Collecting Then, Collecting Today: What's the Difference?" in Anderson, 290.